When I arrive in Addis Ababa on January 7th, I find that it is Christmas and the majority of people are in a festive mood, a stark contrast to Nairobi where I left people reporting to work at the start of a new year. I have just two days to spare in this city before heading on the historical northern route, hitting up spots like Lalibela and the Danakil Depression. To make the most of my time, I sign up for a food tour with Go Addis Tours on my first day, which promises an immersive introduction to Ethiopian food; exploring several restaurants for local food and drinks, all while walking around town to get a feel for the daily life here.
I meet Genet, a warm and personable nursery school teacher-turned-guide that the tour company pairs me up with, at Esset Restaurant. Walking in there is grass spread on a patch of ground at the entrance; I noticed earlier that my taxi driver had grass on the floor of his car as well. This is apparently done during celebrations to wish each other well. Ethiopian jazz plays softly on the speakers and one wall is covered in black and white paintings of the country’s famous actors, musicians and journalists. At the open kitchen, the staff are dexterously pouring a four-day fermented teff flour mixture onto a circular griddle to bake, to make the staple dish, injera. This comes served in a sharing platter accompanied by shiro, a chickpea stew which quickly becomes a favourite in my time exploring the country.
Genet tells me the rules for eating from a shared platter: use one hand, no licking and no double-dipping. The waitresses, as polite and pretty as Ethiopian women are said to be, go around passing complimentary freshly-made defo dabo bread, their Christmas gift to patrons.
After this meal, we take a leisurely stroll to the next spot called Yeshi buna. Buna is the Ethiopian word for coffee, which according to legend, was discovered here by a shepherd called Kaldi who after noticing that his goat would become more energetic after nibbling on the bright red berries of a particular bush, decided to try them for himself. Today, the beverage is typically served black, in espresso-style cups, with sugar on the side. Yeshi Buna proudly displays its coffee set at one corner, and the chairs all have hand carved images that tell stories of some of the 80 tribes in Ethiopia, such as a lady from the highlands spinning cotton by hand. The space is intimate, the chairs low, and the dish, when it comes served in a colourful woven basket, is delicious. We accompany this with a St George beer which is light and easy to enjoy even for a beer-averse person like me.
The walk to the final stop takes about 15 minutes which I spend taking in Bole, considered the nicest part of Addis. Old taxis and tuk tuks painted white and dark blue line a cobblestoned street while the women sashay along in their beautiful handwoven and embroidered traditional dresses. I marvel at the charming street-side cafes and bars and say hello to some people; by my experience, Ethiopians are really warm and welcoming. Having worked up enough appetite to eat again, we get to Yilma, which Genet boldly declares the best butchery in Addis. Its claims to fame is that this is where Anthony Bourdain dined when he visited the city. It’s a family business started 50 years ago by the patriarch who started off selling livestock from his own farm before progressing into this meat-focused eatery. Fresh delivery is done daily, and since Orthodox Christians don’t eat meat on Wednesday and Friday, they remain closed on those days.
The space is large with numerous tables, two TVs and a live butchery from which we order our meat. There are two go-to dishes here. The tibs is fried up with a lot of onions and is downright delicious; a typical Kenyan’s dream. Then there is tire siga, which translates to raw meat, and that’s exactly what it is. Straight from the butcher’s knife, the beef is diced then served on a plate, accompanied by a spicy dip made with red chill, awaze, mitmita and mustard. I take a chunk, dip it into the condiment, then take a bite. It is really soft and you do get the sense that you’re chewing raw beef… but maybe that’s just a psychological thing. Given the number of spices used in the condiment, it is really bold and flavourful, but without it, I probably wouldn’t dare to eat the raw meat.
Given that it is a holiday, we are unable to get a place that does a coffee ceremony. After a delightful time showing me around Addis, introducing me to the food and answering all my eager questions about the culture, Genet and I part ways with a promise to keep in touch. The night is still young, so I swing by the oldest coffee house in town, Tomoca, where the coffee is still brewed in vintage coffee machines. Thereafter, I am wired enough to go out dancing…